Each spring, millions of Americans head out to their gardens and get to work growing food. In fact, the number of U.S. households engaged in gardening jumped from 36 million households in 2008 to 42 million in 2013 — a 17 percent increase, according to the National Gardening Association.
The trend is particularly hot among millennials, according to the association:
Young people, particularly millennials (ages 18-34), are the fastest growing population segment of food gardeners. In 2008 there were 8 million millennial food gardeners. That figure rose to 13 million in 2013, an increase of 63%. Millennials also nearly doubled their spending on food gardening, from $632 million in 2008 to $1.2 billion in 2013.
Such efforts result in a bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables that lasts throughout the summer and into fall.
But as every green thumb knows, gardening isn’t always cheap. Fortunately, there are ways to dig yourself out of a potentially expensive hole and still have a garden that is the envy of neighbors.
To create a flourishing-yet-frugal garden — whether it’s a longtime passion or you are new to the hobby — simply rake through these five steps:
1. Invest in good tools
If you are new to gardening — or you simply want to deepen your commitment to the hobby — the prospect of purchasing a slew of expensive tools can be daunting. Fortunately, there are ways to get those tools for pennies on the dollar.
Check out sites like Craigslist or Freecycle for bargains. People who are moving often are willing to sell their tools cheaply — or even give them away.
Other places to find cheap tools include thrift stores, garage sales and estate sales. You may even find the ultimate bargain by simply scanning the curbs in your neighborhood on trash day.
Finally, you can organize tool-sharing groups in your neighborhood.
Don’t let your passion for gardening outrun your common sense: If you need a tractor-mower, rototiller or backhoe, it may be more cost-efficient to rent.
2. Search for cheap seeds — and don’t overbuy
When you buy seeds, never get more than you need. Many dedicated gardeners have loads of leftover seed from previous seasons. It’s easy to fall prey to this mistake, especially when seeds are on sale.
If you do buy extra seeds, keep them in a cool, dry place so you can use them next year. Refrigerate them in an airtight jar or plastic container.
Some types of seed — including beet, cucumber, muskmelon and tomato — can be stored for at least five years. Others, including sweet corns and onions, may be good for just one or two years.
Also, as the growing year wanes, look for cheap, end-of-season seed. You can find it everywhere from eBay to your local supermarket.
3. Create your own mulch and compost
If you plan ahead, you can avoid purchasing mulch or compost from a gardening store.
Instead of bagging leaves in the fall, shred them for mulch. Follow the process recommended by HGTV.
Another idea is to ask road crews clearing trees and brush if they will dump their wood chips at your place. Crews may be willing to off-load their materials rather than having to haul them away at the end of a job.
It’s also easy to create your own compost. Eggshells, coffee grounds and filters, fruits and vegetables, grass clippings, shredded paper, and leaves are all prefect compost ingredients.
Some city and county governments also give away mulch or compost.
4. Use recycled items around the house
Repurposing household items can help reduce your gardening expenses.
For example, an old Better Homes and Gardens article recommends using a simple cut-off gallon milk carton as a scooping tool or a starting bed for seedlings. And a discarded door can be used as a wall in the yard for climbing roses.
5. Collect and store rainwater
If you are not careful, the large water bills you rack up when irrigating your garden can wash away many of the savings you gain from growing your own produce.
Fortunately, there is a simple solution to this problem: Collect rainwater in barrels. If you find a good deal on a rainwater barrel at a store, go ahead and buy it. But any type of barrel or large bucket that you have lying around the house will do.
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